After Steven Moffat and Matt Smith’s first season of Doctor Who became more of a wild success than even they could perhaps have hoped, any fears of a second year slump should be quickly erased by this extremely accomplished opener.
While RTD’s Who was certainly a more straight-forward monster-of-the-week affair, dealing primarily with monsters and aliens rather than the complexities and endless potential of time-travel itself, the rejuvenated series, particularly in showrunner Moffat’s episodes, revels in the possibilities that the TARDIS and its Time Lord afford.
Unfortunately, there were times in Season 5 when exploring these avenues got a little confusing, and the show threatened to lose itself under its own criss-crossing timelines.
There’s no change on that front here, in terms of the complex, time-spanning plot, but crucially, the show seems to have a found a way to stay afloat in spite of itself. The explanations of what’s going on are clear and the plot is largely followable.
When invitations in TARDIS-blue are sent to Amy, Rory and River – along with an old man named Canton Everett Delaware III – they all convene in Monument Valley, Utah, where they find an older version of The Doctor waiting for them. After a picnic out in the desert, which later plays as a sombre last meal, things take a grave turn when a mysterious figure in an astronaut suit – a mysterious figure that The Doctor seems to recognise – appears in the middle of a lake, and, after a short, off-screen exchange, proceeds to shoot The Doctor.
It would have been near impossible to hide a spoiler the size of Matt Smith departing in the first episode, so when The Doctor is shot again, mid-regeneration, there’s almost a sigh of relief. Until, that is, you realise that without a complete regeneration, The Doctor is dead…
Of course, the show isn’t the show without The Doctor, so it’s not long before the younger incarnation (by some 200 years) turns up on the scene, confused as to why Amy, Rory and River look so surprised and upset to see him. There’s great work from Karen Gillan and Alex Kingston as they struggle to deal with first witnessing The Doctor’s death, and then coming face-to-face with him again, unable to reveal what they’d just witnessed (spoilers!).
Our heroes soon decide to investigate the significance of Delaware III, which leads them to 1969, helping President Richard Nixon deal with a creepy prank caller. All of that, and still room to introduce The Silent, a truly frightening race of aliens, whom people forget that they’ve seen the second they look away.
As you can tell, there’s a lot going on, but it’s remarkably easy to follow as long as you don’t get distracted, and the production values leave the show looking terrific, while Murray Gold continues his superlative work as composer. The US locations make for a suitably epic backdrop to The Doctor’s apparent demise, and allow for an achingly beautiful sunset wake, as his body is burned aboard a small boat, Viking style.
The presence of cult TV regular Mark Sheppard as the younger Delaware III (with the older version amusingly played by Sheppard’s own father) also adds some real gravitas to proceedings – something that is, with all due respect, often lacking when the show is restricted to its usual Welsh casting pool.
There’s even room for the plot to stop for a few great character moments, such as River opening up to Rory (Arthur Darvill, seeming like a proper companion now rather than a hanger-on) about the terrible emotional cost of her relationship with The Doctor.
River has become such a central enigma to the current Who era that it’s nice to be reminded that she’s an actual character as well, not just a flirty cardboard cut-out. In fact, while Doctor Who’s pacey nature and boundless energy are part of the appeal, the show would perhaps be wise to pause for breath like this with a little more regularity.
Overall though, ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ is a terrific start to Season 6, and one that leads to a lot of questions that will have fans theorising long into the night.
Who was the astronaut that shot The Doctor? Who is the little girl that keeps phoning President Nixon? And did we really see The Doctor’s final moments?
If the show continues to look this accomplished, and can keep telling complex, scary stories as effectively as it did here, then it’s going to be a hell of a ride finding out.
Aired at 6pm on Saturday 23rd April 2011 on BBC One.